in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Memory is the human faculty that attempts to process one’s passage through time. While memory may aspire to provide continuity, meaning, identity to one’s existence, Milan Kundera, in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, demonstrates that human memory is frail, fallible, and easily obfuscated. Gravity and geometry provide Kundera with the metaphoric vocabulary to discuss the significance and limitations of memory through images of lightness and weight, the circle and the line. These seemingly dialectical metaphors overlap, interact, inform, and oppose one another. Though “Kundera does not advocate or even suggest life without opposition”, the conflation and continued opposition between these images
is ultimately constructive (O’Brien 108). Kundera associates memory and the process of remembering with the revelation of certain conditions of gravity and geometry. He does not adopt a singular or consistent description of the images manifested by these conditions. Images of circles and lines, lightness and weight are negotiated and remain in flux throughout the novel. These images promise but cannot provide totality, an absolute comprehensible framework for interpreting experience. By aligning these images with memory, Kundera is able to simultaneously reveal and critique a fundamental ethical struggle housed by memory, a conflict between structure, meaning, and absurdity.
Though the work is structurally cyclical, the character Tamina, Kundera clearly states, is a critical nexus for the novel. “It is a novel about Tamina and whenever Tamina goes offstage it is a novel for Tamina” (227). Thematic variations in each section are thus overtly intended to expand and elucidate the reader’s understanding/interpretation of Tamina and her struggle with the past, with her memory. As the narrator, Kundera draws from a particular metaphoric lexicon throughout the novel to describe situations and circumstances where memory and meaning become problematic and remain, perhaps, at some basic level, irreconcilable.
Tamina embodies this conflict and as such, Michael Richards suggests, “...is a commentary on living as an individual in the modern world” (228). Kundera examines this condition by consistently reasserting images of levitation, free fall, ring dances, and borderlines, while allowing the meanings applied to the images themselves to exist in a state of perpetual redefinition, a simultaneous gesture toward harmony and discord. If, as Charles Molesworth suggests, “Tamina is the narrator’s loved one, his alter-ego, and the embodiment of his vision of redemptive interiority all at once,” exploring how the specific metaphors of gravity and geometry affect Tamina’s desires, actions, and discoveries could lead to a better understanding of the metaphoric-philosophical structure of the novel as a whole (71).
Memory: Lightness/Weight, Circle/Line
We seem to operate under a commonly held assumption about the function of memory. The dominant assumption is that the function of memory is to provide human life with structure, order on some basic level. From this order individuals are capable of deriving or discovering meaning. Moments of crisis or isolation promote this all too human response. In Kundera’s novel, Mama’s loneliness is held in check because “she always had something to occupy her thoughts”, her memories (58). John O’Brien goes so far as to describe Tamina as a curator of memories in his book Milan Kundera and Feminism (101). Tamina attempts to preserve the past with museum-like efficiency and objectivity in order to instill her life and her husband’s existence with meaning.
Rather than an innately structured absolute human faculty, Kundera seems to suggest that memory is capable of accommodating various and even contradictory structures. Fictional characters, living individuals, groups, and governments can each invest a particular sense of structure in memory. Put another way, human beings and the institutions they create assign rational coherence to memory; rational coherence is, thus, not an intrinsic quality of memory itself.
This condition allows Kundera to introduce a set of metaphoric structures to reveal or critique totalizing concepts of memory. Images of unity and absolute harmony float with an almost otherworldly disregard for gravity throughout the novel, enticing characters to trace circular patterns with their dance. Memory, in this context, is a self contained, self sustaining endeavor. Set in stark contrast are images of division, of imperceptible boundary lines, which cause characters to sink under the intense burden of separation. These images highlight an essential disparity, the unknowable gap between the moment of actual experience and the recollection of experience through memory. Kundera seems to assert that we live with our lives caught between these conflicting mnemonic structures, between uncontested meaning and abject meaninglessness.
This assertion has a direct impact on the relationship between memory and meaning. Built upon the structures imposed by individuals or institutions, meaning is applied to memory. Memory, in one sense, then becomes a conduit through which meanings are created rather than discovered. Meaning is thus manufactured, transcribed, and contextualized through memory.
Conditions of geometry and gravity establish specific metaphoric frameworks, contexts, through which meaning or its absence can be defined. The circle is a self-contained, closed system of meaning. Circles establish unity and stability of meaning through assimilation. Circles can expand to include, to embrace, to homogenize. The simple movement of the actress Hanna’s thumb captures the essence of this idea. “It was the conscious and deliberate, lithe and graceful gesture of tracing around herself a magic circle within which she could concentrate entirely on herself and the others could concentrate on her” (Kundera 269). The truth of the circle, by its very nature, denies even the possibility of another opposing vision of truth. In this manner, “circular discourses...are murderous in their intentions; they not only enable the vaporization of cultural ideas but of human beings that live by these ideas” (Pelikan 254). Circles eliminate or categorically exclude voices of dissent, voices that bring the weight of discord or uncertainty. For those within the circle there is a sense of freedom which is expressed as weightlessness. Because the circle posits itself as a universal structure, with neither need or desire to appeal to anything beyond its boundaries, individuals are encouraged to create similar circular notions of self.
This type of self definition is characterized by its levity and freedom, a movement inward, an utterly personal process without the need for outside referents. The ring dance (which will be examined later in greater detail), whose participants dance themselves out of individual existence, is the most potent example of this process in the novel. Circles afford their members a measure of self absorption, though at the cost of eventual and utter self consumption or suppression. Meaning promoted by the circle, its fundamental harmony, overrides the importance or very existence of any individual.
The straight line, on the other hand, establishes meaning by acknowledging and separating it from its opposite, meaninglessness. Border lines exist to define the boundaries of meaning. Unlike the circle, the line is an open formation whose movement is forward looking and progressive. Kundera submits that “joyous words like ‘forward’ and ‘farther’ are the lascivious voice of death urging us to hasten it” (246). Those characters who are able to perceive even the slightest impression of their proximity to the border, the boundary lines of meaning, carry with them a heavy, almost unbearable, psychological burden. Lines that separate individuals and ideas accentuate the contingent nature of human existence. Even peripheral awareness of these lines forces us to reconcile the meaning of our own existences in a vast and constantly evolving web of relations. The capacity to acknowledge others and their unknowable but significant impact on an individual’s existence creates a sensation of unbearable weight. Like Jan in the final section of the novel, Kundera suggests that “the border” between absolute and relational meaning, may be humanity’s “lot from the very beginning” (298).
Within public or private spheres or boundaries, the process of creating meaning through memory is readily apparent. On a personal level, Mama creates an alternate (false) memory of reciting a poem during a graduation ceremony to maintain her status as an equal to her son (Kundera 58). The public policies of President Gustav Husak, whom Kundera dubs “the President of Forgetting,” literally redefine the boundaries of history and culture in order to exclude and thus eliminate certain inappropriate (read: threatening) ideas expressed by individuals (217). Because he “said something” he “should not have said,” Kundera finds himself on the outside looking in, falling away from Czech society (92). “Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not yet stopped falling” (Kundera 92). Kundera falls because he has been officially forgotten; those who are excluded from the public circle are relegated to anonymity, their individual existences acquire weight, having been deemed meaningless to and incompatible with mutually accepted public memory. This situation prompts Kundera to ask “is it true that the people will be unable to survive crossing the desert of organized forgetting?” (218).
Forgetting is an intimate and important partner in the creation of memory. Kundera describes two distinct forms of forgetting: one an unavoidable, seemingly arbitrary, effect of the mind’s ability to store and analyze information over time, the other a deliberate and ideologically or emotionally organized endeavor. Memories are shaped, enclosed, by both forms of forgetting.
Some experiences lodge themselves in the mind, while others are forgotten. Human volition, however, seems to have very little to do with this level of memory. Kundera points to this problematic condition throughout the novel. Some memories characters want to forget, but they cannot. Mirek wants desperately to control the memories of his past affair with Zdena (made manifest in the form of his love letters) in order to forget them. He wants to author a new, more palatable destiny for himself , “but Zdena’s existence denied Mirek that author’s prerogative” (Kundera 15). The presence of an other, in this case Zdena, qualifies the amount of freedom an individual possesses over his or her memory. Shared experiences seem to create memories that no single party can completely remember or forget.
For this very reason, Eva, in the section of the novel entitled Mama, is forever chasing “unforgettable experiences” (Kundera 47). Eva desires an existence dominated and defined by sensual experience. She seems to operate on the assumption that intense sensual memories, though shared, are not easily forgotten. She believes intense sensual experience affords one the freedom for complete physical presence in the moment, an existence as a “simple body, without past or memory, but all the more eager and receptive” (Kundera 69). Sensual memory is thus a method of denying the presence of others. Marketa observes this phenomenon in Eva during their sexual encounter with Karel and experiences it herself. Weighed down by her love for Karel, Marketa experiences joy and exhilaration only when she pictures him as a headless representation of masculinity, stripping him of memory and identity. “The anonymity of the body was a suddenly discovered paradise” (Kundera 69). Kundera undercuts this almost epiphanal moment, intruding with Karel’s “unbelievably idiotic words: ‘I’m Bobby Fischer! I’m Bobby Fischer’”, suggesting that even this sensual memory is beyond the control of any individual (69). The impact of this struggle with memory is characterized by a vocabulary of lightness and weight. Other people, because they share our experiences, add weight to our memories and make them impossible to completely master or retain. Because we do not exist in isolation, Kundera suggests the process of forgetting is ongoing and unconscious and often seems irrational or arbitrary.
The second form of forgetting builds upon the first, but is influenced more directly by conscious human choice. In order to form a unified memory, individuals and institutions can selectively ignore, choose to forget, certain stored events or experiences. Evoking the name and the fictional world of Franz Kafka, Kundera is acutely aware that the calculated ability to forget houses the potential to circumvent or utterly destroy the past and with it one’s own identity. “...a name is continuity with the past and a people without a past are a people without a name” (Kundera 216).
The process of remembering seems, ultimately, to imply (or possibly even to be equated with) the process of providing structure and meaning to memory itself. Memory does not, in fact, appear to precede the act of remembering. Remembering is an essential act of revision, the conscious and unconscious editing of experience to produce memory. Each remembrance establishes a new link with past experiences. As an act of conscious construction, a novel (like Banaka’s or Kundera’s) or a diary (like Tamina’s) becomes a tangible transcription of the process of remembering. In this manner, memory is endowed with physical substance; it becomes a commodity, an entity or expression with borders separate from its creator. Through Mirek and his subservience to a destiny whose interests do “not correspond at all to Mirek’s”, Kundera displays a keen understanding that memory, even at a more abstract level, can control or be controlled, can manipulate or be manipulated (15).
Tamina: Remembering and Forgetting
Kundera grants special dispensation to Tamina and the significance of Tamina’s story to the novel as a whole. She is an omnipresent figure whose influence is felt, even when she is absent from the novel. We are invited to read other sections of the novel as reflected and fragmentary images of Tamina’s life. Like Kundera, who inscribes “himself as a witness and critic of his own book”, Tamina exists within “the book’s special fictional space as well as out of it”, an “audience” member and “principal” participant (Pelikan 255: Molesworth 71: Kundera 227). She fulfills a concurrently active and passive role, allowing Kundera to illuminate “the master theme of memory” within fractured, often paradoxical contexts (Banerjee 149). The crucial question: how does one live authentically with memory: of the past, of others, of one’s self? is underscored, embedded in the consciousness of the reader through recurring metaphors of gravity and geometry. Unpacking images of circles and lines, lightness and weight provides the reader with an interpretive thread that can be followed throughout the novel. Tamina’s unique vantage point in the novel affords us the opportunity to examine these metaphors within the contracting individual psychological sphere of Tamina herself and simultaneously extrapolate these interpretations to the rest of the text.
Tamina is driven to preserve her past in order to protect her notion of self. Kundera pictures her floating, looking backward on a raft, “adrift on the water...looking only back” (116). While attempting to exist wholly within the past may permit Tamina to attain a degree of lightness, time is both a burden and a boundary to Tamina. Tamina is caught “looking backward in a world that is moving forward” (O’Brien 102). The passage of time distances her from and threatens to obscure what she considers to be the defining moment of her existence, the memory of her marriage. Each passing moment in the present is an “invisible point”, a “nothingness that moves toward death” (Kundera 119). The world rises inexorably “around Tamina like a circular wall”; with each passing moment another brick is laid (Kundera 115). The present surrounds Tamina, “a bit of lawn at the bottom”, and threatens to cut off life giving light to the “single rose, the memory of her husband...growing in that lawn” (Kundera 115).
The process of remembering, however, allows Tamina to trace a line between otherwise singular experiences in the past in order to establish continuity and meaning to her identity. Tamina’s “project, like Don Quixote’s, is predicated on an ingenuous belief that words and images in the mind possess the power to resurrect the past” (Banerjee 146). As Tamina desperately struggles to assert coherent authority over her memories, she becomes the conscious author of her identity. “Each of us, even if only in the most informal way, is constantly writing and rewriting our autobiography and in that sense we are all doing History” (Richards 223). “She is,” as Maria Nemcova Banerjee suggests, “the reigning subject of her own love story” (167). A chronological record of her experiences (vacations, Christmases, New Years, and nicknames) she believes, will preserve not only her husband but her sense of self. The timeline thus becomes the “underlying framework of a reconstructed past” (Kundera 117-8). This linear catalogue of memory, if complete and sustained, will bring life to the past and make it capable of housing order, meaning, and, most importantly, value.
Memory alters the perception of perspective, and, in doing so, permits Tamina to evaluate her self as a function of her memory. Though she currently lives in an unnamed town in Western Europe, Tamina resides more wholly within the Prague of her memory. The narrator admits this “breaks all the rules of perspective, but you’ll just have to make the best of it” (109). Direct personal experience has a tremendous impact on the ability to judge the relative proportions of things. Like Mama’s “faulty vision”, a redefined sense of perspective where “tanks are perishable” and “pears are eternal”, Tamina acknowledges that her system of values is, by necessity, insular and absolutely self referential (41). “What gave her written memories their meaning was that they were intended for her alone” (Kundera 139). Privacy, the singularity of her experiences, establishes their worth. Tamina struggles against attempts to stamp her love with a quality of sameness, thereby rendering it “insignificant and ordinary” (Kundera 131). Kundera suggests that memories lose their individual sense of scale and significance as they become part of the past. “Just as her past contracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours” (Kundera 119). Instead of a young widow, Tamina is, Maria Banerjee asserts, “wedded to the past. Midwife of memory, she presides over a painful labor in whose outcome is derision” (167). She is compelled to turn inward to create and maintain an ultra-private sphere. Tamina surrounds her self with concentric circles of silence and memory in order to preserve her worth as a distinct individual.
It is precisely because Tamina is surrounded by multiple universes of words, that she chooses to exist in a self consuming circle of silence. The process of circumscription is initially presented as a source of and a refuge from the weight of meaninglessness. Whether it is done privately or publicly, “Kundera seems to...indicate that the problem of affirming one’s existence, of establishing one’s identity, is a universal one” (Richards 225). The condition Kundera dubs the drive toward universal “graphomania (a mania for writing books)” is motivated by the painful “thought of disappearing, unheard, unseen, into an indifferent universe” (127, 147). Instead of expressing an appeal for communication with others, the desire to “turn” one’s self “into a universe of words” is an outward imposition, a desire to become a self contained statement “which allows no voice to filter through from the outside” (147, 127). Graphomania is cacophonous, dissonant, and exclusionary; it affords each individual the right to produce an unequivocal and completely isolated tangible transcription of self. “...when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness an incomprehension will have arrived” (Kundera 147).
Tamina struggles to remain afloat in a civilization drowning in a sea of words which have lost their meaning, of noise. Her silence is an eloquent refusal to participate in this chaotic shouting match. Silence seems, at first, to be an “unbelievable...unexpected gift”, able to allow or create room for one’s self, for others, and for the possibility of a true connection between individuals, “for love” (Kundera 133). In referring to Thomas Mann, Kundera even proposes that an aesthetic sense depends directly upon the presence of silence. “...for beauty to be perceptible, it needs a minimal degree of silence...” (Kundera 144). Tamina’s silence is an essential act of exclusion and self preservation. Silence creates space for beauty and self. A golden ring represents Tamina’s act of silent self definition. Tamina “keeps” the golden ring “convulsively in her mouth” for fear of losing it (Kundera 144). In attempting to protect and preserve the golden ring, Tamina enacts metaphorically a duty she willingly assumes throughout the novel: a fundamental responsibility to and dependence on memory to form a coherent, consistent, continuous, and meaningful identity.
Though this smaller circle of self remains hidden, is not projected outward like the efforts of a graphomaniac, Tamina categorically ignores and revises others around her. Ironically, Tamina, in revising all her experiences in the present within the framework of her memory, reaffirms the very notions of equivalence she struggles against. Thus, public and private circles permit acts of conscious forgetting to take place. Other men become “material for sculpture” to Tamina, as she attempts to reshape “the contours of the face” to represent her husband’s (116). As Glen Brand states, “Tamina’s memory exercise depends upon that aspect of repetition which seeks to obliterate differences so that an original ‘ideal’, the image of her husband’s face, will be present once again” (214). In her circular universe, others are either opportunities to reclaim some forgotten aspect of her husband or marriage, or they simply do not exist at all. “She is utterly enclosed in her own world” (Kundera 157). Other people “ become object-like, one dimensional, all on the ‘outside’” of the circle (Molesworth 82). Her relationship with Hugo is characterized as a means to an end (the recovery of her notebooks) and not an end in and of itself. While Hugo is having sex with her, Tamina’s husband’s face appears to her on “the white surface of Hugo’s wardrobe”, enticing her to recount the chronology of her marriage (Kundera 154). In wanting to write a book about their relationship, Hugo himself is also equally and possibly more overtly guilty of expressing what John O’Brien calls “the drive to textualize others” (103). The essential difference seems to be merely the context in which one is circumscribed: public or private. While “Kundera insists that a real world beyond intertextual circle dancing exists”, it is possible to forget or ignore this fact “by substituting for it an abstraction which serves to deny that real world” (Pelikan 250). Kundera seems to make the case that the compulsion to assimilate is an impulse held in common by humanity.
The circular motions that draw Tamina to create and inhabit an interior world composed of memories lead her ultimately to acknowledge the futility of the project she sets out to accomplish. Tamina discovers that memory is unwieldy, transient, and fundamentally malleable. She falls into despair under the weight of this discovery. “She fell into despair because the past was becoming more and more faint” (Kundera 116). Absolute order cannot be maintained because the “tottering structure of...memory” can and does collapse under its own weight (Kundera 119). The process of remembrance carries with it the burdensome knowledge that memories, even the most precious ones, can be dislodged, replaced, made ugly. Tamina allows Hugo to make love to her with the hope that through him she will be able to retrieve the written record of her memories. As a result, the most intimate memories of her husband are pushed aside by “the image of that boy’s [Hugo’s] balls, cock, and pubic hair and...his sour breath” (Kundera 159). She “knows that the loss of beauty has robbed the discipline of memory of its meaning” (Banerjee 151). Tamina discovers and the narrator vociferously concurs that “the memory of revulsion is stronger than the memory of tenderness”, that forgetting is simultaneously an intimate, conscious, and uncontrollable partner in the creation of memory (Kundera 159). In the end, “Tamina’s spiritual labor of raising memory up is inverted into a sinking” (Banerjee 176).
Tamina shoulders a heavy burden because she shares a “kindred fate” with her memories (Kundera 155). She can neither escape nor deny the oppressive knowledge of her own ability to forget. She “is not heavy with memories...but heavy with remorse. Tamina will never forgive herself for forgetting” (Kundera 224). More than anything, she wants to escape the weight of this remorse, to forget her forgetting. Unlike Prague, though, whose memory has been forcibly taken from it and rewritten, Tamina wants to exist in a state beyond the boundaries of memory, a place “where things weigh nothing at all” (Kundera 224). The desire for escape is also a desire for weightlessness. Thus, when the enigmatic Raphael invites her into his red sports car, Tamina avails herself of the spontaneous opportunity to leave without looking back and without looking ahead.
In leaving with Raphael, Tamina, and the novel itself, arrive at an “intersection of real and imaginary worlds”, the island of children (Molesworth 71). Charles Molesworth suggests that “Kundera is testing the ability of the novel to show us real history...and its fantastic meaning at the same time” (71). Rather than a specific geographical location, Tamina’s desire is fulfilled by a return to childhood. The children of the island exist in an almost prelapsarian state of innocence which is infinitely light. “In such a world, the past is not a burden or weight because the essential ideal remains eternally unchanged ...where repetitions are not variations” (Brand 216, 215). Tamina encounters an opportunity to live in a world where the borders of memory have no meaning. “She had fallen far back to a time when her husband did not exist, when he was neither in memory nor in desire, and thus there was neither weight nor remorse” (Kundera 241).
Though Tamina is reluctant (even fearful) initially, the children invite her to join their circle. “Some ten children...were there in a circle, holding hands...They opened the circle to make room for her” (Kundera 234). Nina Pelikan Straus describes the desire to exist within a circle as “a universal human impulse” (249). Tamina characterizes her entry into the circle of children as a subtle conflict, a fight. In order to cross this border, though, she is forced to surrender immediately something she values. “To identify with them she has to give up her privacy” (Kundera 240). The community of children require total disclosure; secrets are incompatible in a society where surface is substance. The function of their circle is to make its members fundamentally equivalent, to homogenize an otherwise disparate group. Tamina is a “Squirrel”, and this is enough to mark her as a member of their circle. Any sense of individual identity beyond this most basic one is ultimately either insignificant or unacceptable to the children. On the island nakedness and eroticism appear to be “inexpressive, mute, lifeless” forms of self definition (Kundera 242). They lack their usual radical potential because they have become commonplace, routine. “By seeing her own nudity in a contiguous relationship with the nudity of the children, the metaphoric relationship which anchored the memory of her husband is disrupted” (Brand 215). In joining the circle, Tamina, experiences for the first time an immediate and complete sensual existence, “a joy of angelic simplicity”, an existence without the weight of memory, imagination or soul (Kundera 250).
The Ring Dance
The ring dance is a central metaphor for the collective control of memory throughout the novel. “Dancing in a ring is magic; a ring dance speaks to us from the ancient depths of our memories” (Kundera 88-9). It “is a structure,” however, “ that must eventually dehumanize those within it” (Pelikan 253). Kundera applies the image of the dance to the fictional lives of Madame Raphael and her students Gabrielle and Michelle, as well as connecting it to his own biographical experience in Czechoslovakia. To Madame Raphael, the ring dance is an expression of her desire “to be in perfect harmony with her students” (Kundera 89). Her desire for absolute unity is qualified by an element of selfishness, however. In order to achieve total consensus, her students must be compelled “to think and say the same things she does, to merge with her into a single body and a single soul in the same circle and the same dance” (Kundera 89). Her dance is an overwhelming, almost tyrannical method of self affirmation. Though her students might bring with them alternate senses of meaning, upon entering the circle all such differences are rendered inconsequential. “A group forms around a theory; the theory is differently understood by individuals; this misunderstanding is based on a common narrative,” a narrative given form as a ring dance (Molesworth 77).
Expanded to the political sphere, the ring dance of the Communist Party Kundera describes from his own life expresses a similar totalitarian desire for conformity and control. Absent from the center, however, is an individual seeking self renewal and affirmation through others. Instead, an abstract ideological institution entices dancers to its dance, hoping to promote its continued survival. The dance remains a dance self-perpetuation, where dissonant voices are unwelcome and immediately silenced.
Kundera was one such voice, and as such, he was “expelled from the party, and had to leave the ring dance” (92). He characterizes his exclusion from this circle as a continuous and irrevocable fall. An amount of weight, a burden is added to his life once outside the circle which causes him to fall without remission until his eventual death. And yet, like Tamina with her head gazing backward on the raft, Kundera cannot help expressing “a kind of faint yearning for the lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles” (92).
Kundera’s irrepressible nostalgia for the ring dance implies that there exists a fundamental human desire for lightness. The suggestion seems to be that this compelling drive to become weightless is embedded in human memory and is, therefore a yearning for innocence, stability, coherence in meaning. “I realized with anguish in my heart that they were flying like birds and I was falling like a stone, they had wings and I would never have any” (Kundera 95). The sensation of falling away from the ring dance causes Kundera to harbor the desire to rape his friend R., to reach out desperately in an effort to “contain her entirely” within his own circular universe of self (105). Raping R. will allow the narrator to affirm his existence by denying or enveloping the existence of another, to fix a moment in his unrelenting fall. At the other extreme Madame Raphael, Gabrielle, and Michelle join the ring dance and literally become lighter than air. Described as archangels ascending, the three women seem to express a divinely inspired categorical agreement with being. “The three dancing women were unaware of the others, they were concentrating entirely on themselves and on their sensual pleasure” (Kundera 104). Their absolute commitment to the dance, instead of becoming an ultimate act of self affirmation, brings about a process of self abnegation. Their lives lack weight and final physical presence in the novel.
Tamina: Living and Dying
For a time, Tamina thrives dancing among the children. Eventually, though, the children unite to attack and expel Tamina from their circle. They lash out to assert order and unanimity in their world. “Kundera paints a picture of childhood innocence as totalitarian restriction” (Molesworth 76). The physical and emotional maturity, which once made Tamina “a queen who” ruled “over those with hairless groins”, ultimately separates her from the children. Tamina has crossed over borders of which the children are otherwise ignorant. Even the circle cannot mask or deny this essential difference. Tamina, as a mature woman, stands as a challenge to their homogenous society. “Tamina is outside the children’s law...They [the children] want to hurt anyone beyond their world’s border in order to exalt in their own world and its law” (Kundera 255). The circle remains a viable purveyor of levity and meaning for its members so long as it is able to effectively eradicate or assimilate that which is different.
In being thrust from the circle, Tamina comes to the realization that she cannot exist as a “single undifferentiated being” and must try “to stay right on the border” (Kundera 219, 255). Through his adept use of metaphor, what Kundera seems to suggest is that humanity inhabits a tense and constantly negotiated borderline between meaning and its absence and that the condition of the absurd rises from our movements along or around this line. “The border is constantly with us, irrespective of time and our stage of life...it is omnipresent, even though circumstance might make it more or less visible” (Kundera 297). Without knowledge of one’s constant and close proximity to this border, though, meaning and meaninglessness easily become convoluted.
Tamina experiences “the terrifying weight of lightness” because she is unable to maintain her balance on the border between meaning and its absence (Kundera 259). Kundera “stresses the need to abandon mutually exclusive (either/or) positions in favor of a (both/and) balance in which neither pole is dominant...” (O’Brien 99). The structures we use to create memories and give meaning to our existence feed off balance between these absolute opposites. When the children’s dance “does away with the opposition between obscenity and innocence, vileness and purity, Tamina” experiences “that unbearable absence of weight” and tries to escape (Kundera 258). Balance is essential for, “only a few millimeters” separate us “from the other side of the border where things have no meaning” (Kundera 292). Laughter, for instance, depends upon balance between its angelic and the devilish forms. “If there were too much uncontested meaning in the world (the angel’s power) man would succumb under its weight. If the world were to lose all its meaning (the devil’s reign), we could not live either” (Kundera 86).
“Like a cross growing heavier each day,” time is a burden that directly informs Tamina’s ability to maintain her balance on the border (Kundera 256). Tamina attempts to escape the abject meaninglessness of the children’s gyrations by swimming out to sea. Motivated by a “tremendous craving for life, and her body”, she swims through the night, invigorated by a rediscovered physical strength (Kundera 261). Tamina is brought face to face with the irrevocably finite and fragile aspects of her existence, however, when she realizes that she will never reach the other shore. Her existence is fundamentally limited by time. She must accept her mortality. Though disheartened to the point of despair, Tamina continues to try and tread water, to remain balanced, buoyant. “Though her disciplined effort is doomed to failure, just like her quest of memory,” Tamina continues to struggle to keep her head above the water (Banerjee 181). Tamina acknowledges that she cannot float indefinitely; her legs become like lead, “dragging her down like weights,” and death will come to her (as it does to all people) and she will vanish “beneath the surface” never to reappear (Kundera 262).
Perhaps what Tamina realizes is that dying is an intimate part of the process of living and that both require constant struggle. “The act of dying, as Kundera shows it, is the most absurd of human adventures” (Banerjee 182). To live one must continue to tread water; an authentic existence depends on variations in circular motions. Nina Pelikan Straus calls this “the terrifying burden of buoyancy” (253). Living entails a voyage of variation in which one struggles to remain afloat in time and space. “The voyage of variation,” however, also “leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden within all things” (Kundera 226). Because memory of experience is fleeting, Kundera asserts that life gains its meaning through variation of interior experience. “...in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it” (Kundera 226). Moments of clarity are forestalled or recede quickly from view, and desire remains unfulfilled or without an object. Kundera wants to reassert the importance of exploring and redefining the second infinity, inner categories of meaning in one’s self and in others. In order to avoid the destructive qualities of an absolute or totalizing system of values, the discovery or creation of meaning and identity through memory must be an ongoing and evolving endeavor. Kundera could not advance this claim adequately in his novel without metaphors of circles and lines, lightness and weight. Metaphors of gravity and geometry enrich and inform the individual’s absurd struggle to control (if only temporarily) rudimentary aspects of memory and meaning.
Banerjee, Maria Nemcova. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of
Milan Kundera. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
Brand, Glen. “Kundera and the Dialectic of Repetition.”
Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction. Aron Aji ed. New
York: Garland, 1992.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Aaron
Asher trans. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996.
Molesworth, Charles. “Kundera and The Book: The Unsaid and
the Unsayable” Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction.
Aron Aji ed. New York: Garland, 1992.
O’Brien, John. Milan Kundera and Feminism. New York: St.
Martin’s Press 1995.
Pelikan Straus, Nina. “Erasing History and Deconstructing
the Text: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” Milan
Kundera and the Art of Fiction. Aron Aji ed. New York:
Richards, Michael. “Tamina as Alter Ego”. Milan Kundera and
the Art of Fiction. Aron Aji ed. New York: Garland, 1992.